“Who is my Neighbor?” A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7: 7-17

Luke 10:25-37

Once a lawyer approached Jesus to test him. I’ve had some experience with this as my son is a lawyer. You all know my daughter, Rebecca (the pastor here). Her older brother, Andrew, is a lawyer. In fact, he’s a prosecutor.

Last summer we attended a memorial service for Martha’s aunt, and they had a reception afterward. Someone had brought an assortment of pastries from a fancy Italian bakery, and there were some lovely little cannoli. “Did you get any cannoli,” I asked. “I had a couple of them and they were delicious.” “No he said, “They were gone by the time I got to them.” “Too bad, there weren’t too many of them. Actually, I only had one.” He asked “Were you lying to me before or are you lying to me now!”

So, the lawyer wanted to test Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s a big question about the meaning, purpose and destiny of life.

But, in this case,it is a disingenuous question, because the lawyer knew the answer that Jesus would give him, the answer that any rabbi (or any devout Jew, for that matter) would give him.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks and Jesus answers with a question: “What is written in the law?” and the lawyer rightly answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (that’s Deuteronomy 6:5)’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (that’s Leviticus 19:18).’”

Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly, “Do this and you will live.” Jesus knows real living means loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  And Jesus doesn’t distinguish between life after death and life now. Eternal life is not about here or hereafter, it is qualitative not quantitative, but somehow this fullness of life is wrapped up in the doing.

Have you noticed that when Jesus taught some people got it and some people didn’t?  I suppose it’s still like that today, some people get the Gospel and some people don’t. Or we get it some of the time and don’t get it most of the time.

In today’s story we have somebody who didn’t get it: a lawyer. In next week’s story we also have somebody who didn’t get it: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Notice that Jesus has two different answers for them. To the lawyer he tells “go and do” and to Martha he tells, “sit down and listen.” Which should remind us that Jesus’ word is not the same to everyone.  He didn’t use a one size fits all template.

The lawyer doesn’t get it because he believes that his conversation with Jesus is a religious quiz. He doesn’t realize it is about his life. He doesn’t understand that it is not what you know, but what you do that brings you the fullness of life of which Jesus speaks.

So, the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He’s hoping Jesus will limit his liability. Who don’t I have to love? Who is exempt? He wants Jesus to give him that key that will unlock the mysteries. He wants it to come from outside himself, wants someone to do it for him.

But Jesus won’t do it. Have you noticed how often Jesus doesn’t answer a question? He might draw in the sand with a stick, or hold up a coin, or tell a pithy parable, or, as in today’s Gospel, tell a story.

It is a story we know well, about a man who is robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road and how two good religious figures walk by his broken body and don’t help him, while a despised foreigner stops and takes care of him.

Let’s try a thought experiment by putting it in a local setting. The Pastor of the United Congregational Church of Little Compton walks by, and a prominent deacon walks by, but some big hairy Hell’s Angel covered with tattoos with a Confederate Flag decal on his chopper stops and takes care of the mugged man. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

Let’s expand this thought experiment. Imagine two pious Christians with Red MAGA hats on their way to their megachurch passing by the poor man while an atheist stops to help. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

Or to flip it, imagine a justice activist and a liberal college professor on their way to a MOVE-ON meeting passing by the injured man while a conservative libertarian stops and helps. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

We see how Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer. The question ceases to be “Who is my neighbor?” What the lawyer really wants to know is: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” The question Jesus poses to the lawyer is this: “Are you fit to be a neighbor?”

“Which of these three was neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks the lawyer, who can only say, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus then ends the conversation, “Go and do likewise!”

So many sermons on this passage are simply moralistic, about the obligation to the neighbor. And indeed, we do have an obligation to our neighbor. But the deeper truth is that we need to be a neighbor as much as we need to help a neighbor.

“Do this and you will live,” Jesus says. Yet it’s not so easy is it to always be a neighbor, and the lawyer’s attempt to define the limits of his responsibility is perfectly understandable to us. We, too, want to know the limits of our liability.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who is an actual liberal college professor at Piedmont College, tells a story on herself about preparing a sermon on the Good Samaritan. She writes,

I have been thinking all week about the parable, reading creative commentaries on it and talking it over with my friends.  At least one of the truths I got from it was that God comes to us daily in unexpected encounters with unexpected people and if we are on the ball, we will not ignore them. Then Thursday I was driving to work through the early morning drizzle, my seat belt on and my doors locked, when I saw a car with its hood up on Howell Mill Road. As I approached a tall black man stepped into the road, holding up a pair of jumper cables and looking me straight in the eye.  Several hundred pieces of information went through my mind in about three seconds. ‘The man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—never open your door to a stranger—go to the nearest service station and send a mechanic—the man needs help—what if he cannot afford a mechanic—the man needs help—I am sorry, I cannot help—maybe the next person will.’ And I drove on to work, to complete my research on the Good Samaritan.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, p 118)

It’s not an easy proposition to be a neighbor to anyone. The lawyer is thinking, as we are, where will it end?  I find myself having that that internal conversation all the time.  I wonder: Do I have to be neighbor to all the charities that send me their appeal letters? Do I have to be a neighbor to migrants on our Southern border? What about migrants in Europe?

And are individual acts of mercy all that is required of us? Our first lesson for today was Amos’s vision of a plumb line, a string with a weight on it that builders use to make the building straight.

Amos says God is judging Israel by holding up a plumb line to see if their national life is just and true. And the litmus test for judging the health of the nation’s life was how its most vulnerable people are being treated. In that society, a patriarchy, the most vulnerable members were widows and orphans, who had no husband or father to protect them, and sojourners, who had no attachment to the land for status. In our day we call the sojourner a migrant or a refugee. God holds the nation responsible for helping such neighbors in need. (For a sermon I preached on Amos 7 last year, go here.)

Martin Luther King once preached a famous sermon at Riverside Church on the Good Samaritan, in which he raised the question about whether our faith only asks us to do the act of mercy without addressing some of the deeper societal structures that cause evil and injustice. What if the man who was robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road was not a one off event, but a recurring case. What if a band of robbers was constantly preying on travelers? Wouldn’t we be called on to go to the city council and ask for more policing, better lighting? And perhaps we ourselves could set up a Neighborhood Watch Committee.

I was on a Neighborhood Watch Committee once. An arsonist was starting fires on people’s back porches. A local doctor and I drew the 12-3 AM shift and drove around the neighborhood looking for any suspicious activity. One night in the wee small hours we saw a car driving slowly through the neighborhood, so we followed it all over until it pulled up and parked in front of the police station, and two plainclothes police officers got out. We smiled sheepishly as we passed by. Anyway, we were trying to make our neighborhood safe.

Dr. King put it like this:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks back, “Whose neighbor are you?” Jesus knows that the one he calls Father loves all his children, not just the powerful and the privileged.

So, Jesus won’t set limits on love and mercy. He leaves it all messy for us to struggle with and figure out. And it is messy to figure out.  But it seems clear enough to me that the promised eternal life somehow lies in the living of it and the doing of it and not merely in the knowing.  We are not saved by our works, but as James asks “Where is faith without works?”  If one loves God, won’t one also love those whom God loves? As Mother Teresa said, “It is impossible to love God without loving our neighbor.”

But you may be wondering, we can’t be neighbor to everyone! True enough. There are obviously limits of time and money that mean we do not get to neighbor the world. A trip to the Third World or the nearest big city will convince you of that soon enough.

And if we think that a frenetic activism is what Jesus requires from us we may need to listen carefully to Jesus next week when he tells Martha to stop fussing over him and sit down and listen like her sister Mary.

God’s mercy and love don’t stop on our street or neighborhood. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea” as the old hymn puts it. And Jesus is always inviting us into that mercy and love, by doing something of God’s work here and now, and in the doing knowing something eternal life.

What does it mean that we can’t fix the world? It means, for one thing, that we are not God. But just because we can’t be neighbor to everyone, is no reason to be neighbor to no one. That is the real sin: to be neighbor to no one. Or, worse, to even blame the needy for their neediness. As we have seen over the years in conversations about government aid to the poor. There was once something of a consensus that society had some responsibility for even those neighbors whose poverty was brought on by bad choices, the so-called undeserving poor. They were once considered our neighbors.

That has changed. Today is not a good time to be needy in America. Or poor, or sick. There is a cruelty that has seeped into our national discourse that damages the soul of America. Whether the Stock Market is booming or not, mercy is in short supply. Of course, when the question is “who is my neighbor?”  it isn’t hard to think of people who we imagine don’t qualify as deserving of our pity and mercy.

But notice that the Samaritan didn’t ask the beaten victim for a resume to make sure he was deserving. And Jesus had intentionally picked the Samaritan as the good guy in the story because he was from a hated group. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Israelites and the Samaritans were kind of cousins, and hated each other with that special hatred that only estranged family members can have. Jesus picks him to be “the Good Samaritan” for this reason.

So, to get the right answer we need to have the right question. “Who is my neighbor?” and “Who isn’t my neighbor?” are both the wrong question. The right question that Jesus poses to us is this: “Whose neighbor are you?” Amen.

(I preached this sermon on July 14, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI.)


“Joy Comes with the Morning” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 30

Isaiah 66:10-14

I’m glad today we have the brass quintet with us this morning because my sermon is about joy and rejoicing, and what better expresses that than the sound of brass instruments, which is why we often have them at Easter, at weddings and other celebrations..

There’s a lot of rejoicing in the Bible: the Israelites rejoiced when they brought in the sheaves; there is rejoicing in heaven over the one lost sinner. There are Paul’s admonitions to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”

We have two lovely readings this morning from the Old Testament that both have a lot of rejoicing going on in them. The first is Psalm 30. If it is a psalm with which you are not acquainted it is well worth getting to know. The poet is on the other side of some personal tragedy or trauma. He hints at what it was, but never quite tells us. It was as if he had died, but has now been restored to life. And his response to his restoration is worshipful thanksgiving.

Karl Barth once said that the worst sin in ingratitude, and I often wonder about those who have no sense of God in their lives. Who do they thank? Who do they thank of the birth of a child or a glorious sunset? The meditation I chose for the bulletin today is from John Calvin, who we don’t typically think of as a joyous guy, but look at what he says, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Rejoice and give thanks.

But it is clear that the poet of Psalm 30 has no doubt who to thank. “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, you have healed me, you have brought me back from death. You have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”  Sheol was the shadowy underworld where the souls of the dead reside. And the Pit is, well, the Pit.

Here the poet is giving joyful thanks for his life restored beyond any hope of restoration. The poet does admit that he has experienced some hard times when he has known the absence of God, or even the anger of God. But he is quick to say that such times have been fleeting: “For God’s anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” This mirrors the passage in Isaiah 54: 7 where God says to Israel, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

But after a night of weeping joy comes with the morning. The Hebrew word translated here as “joy” means a shout of glee, something like in English “yay,” “wow” or “woot woot.” A shout of joy comes in the morning after a hard night of weeping..

After my bicycle accident 19 years ago (I have traumatic brain injury), I suffered many months of insomnia. Each night became a dreaded prospect for me. In the early months my brain couldn’t process music, and I had difficulty reading, so there wasn’t much to do to pass the time. So, time each night hung heavy on me.

Several times during that bad period I got up with the dawn and wrote a hymn. Sometime it would come complete to me in meter. As I read them now some of those hymns are very dark, as was my circumstances. But the strange thing is that they all end with some element of praise and thanksgiving.

That is what many of the Psalms are like. They move back and forth between lament, even complaint against God, to praise and joyful thanksgiving. And I have come to believe that that is often the rhythm of faith.

It surely is in Psalm 30. The back and forth between lament and joy of this Psalm mirrors real life, whether it is the life of an individual, the life of a congregation, or the life of a nation. We face times of testing, times of profound challenges, times of weeping for what has been lost, but also times of rejoicing for what has been restored, for what has been found, for what has been given to us by sheer grace.

Paul admonishes us to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” That is what a congregation does. We use the metaphor of the body for the church, and it is a good one, for we do not live out our faith alone, but in community. Anybody’s suffering or hardship is ours. Anybody’s joy is our joy. We share it, we feel it, and in sharing both the weeping and the rejoicing our bonds of love and compassion deepen and grow.

Our second reading is also full of rejoicing. It is from Isaiah 66, the very last chapter in the Book of Isaiah. It is quite an extraordinary invitation to rejoicing given what Israel has gone through during the several hundred years that the Book of Isaiah covers.

Let me give you a quick review. I taught a Bible study on Isiah at my church during Lent this year, so this stuff is on my mind. In chapters 1-40 of Isaiah, what we call First Isiah, Israel is under constant threat from enemies including the mighty Assyrian Empire, the Near Eastern neighborhood bully at the time. Isaiah prophesies that God will not abandon Jerusalem to her enemies, and that turns out to be true. Even when the Assyrians lay siege to the city, taunting them from just outside the walls, the city doesn’t fall. The Israelites wake up in the morning to find the massive enemy army gone and many dead bodies. Why? We don’t know. Was there a plague? Was the Assyrian army needed elsewhere? We really don’t know.

In the decades between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah we have the prophet Jeremiah, who changed the prophecy to warn of impending doom at the hands of Israel’s enemies. This time the enemy is the Babylonians, who supplanted the Assyrians as the new neighborhood bully.

Jeremiah’s prophecies were right, and Jerusalem fell, its temple burned, its monarchy finished, and its leading citizens taken in exile to Babylon, where they lived for 70 years. Late in this period of Exile we have Second Isaiah, the Isaiah we all love, who promised comfort to the exiles.  “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people” for instance, and a good deal of the rest of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah.

This prophet up in Babylon promised the exiles that they will be going home to Jerusalem. God will make a way where there seems no way, a highway home. “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain made low, the crooked place straight, and the rough places a plain.” And he was right. The new neighborhood bully that supplanted Babylon this time was Persia, and King Cyrus of Persian freed the exiles and let them go home.

Many of them did, and when they got back to Jerusalem they wept for their ruined city and their broken down temple. This is the time of Third Isaiah and the passage we have today from the time the exiles have returned home to despair.

After all their suffering and loss of identity Isaiah says to them: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her–that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.”

That passage is particularly striking in that it ascribes maternal images to Jerusalem. Like a nursing mother, the city will console and nourish them.

But then, even more dramatically, Isaiah speaks for God, and God, too, is described in strictly maternal terms. Listen to this: “For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.”

It is extraordinary that in this profoundly patriarchal society we have such words from God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” After all the suffering that the people of Israel have been through, they get to hear such moving words of comfort and hope, and are given cause for rejoicing.

One of the things I have noticed as a student of the Bible is that some of Israel’s greatest insights and most artful literature have come about during her time of greatest suffering and defeat. For example, from the time of the Exile we get some of the Bible’s most memorable and impressive passages. We get the great hymn of creation in Genesis 1. We get many of our most beautiful and poignant Psalms. We get the deep dive into the divine purposes of the book of Job. We get the glorious vision of restoration and return in Second Isaiah.

In this we see how often there is a connection between great suffering and great creativity, between great loss and great joy. The shout of joy comes after a hard night of weeping. The joy of Easter comes after the desolation of Good Friday. Restoration, return, resurrection: these are some of the grand themes of God’s way with us.

As the poet says: “O LORD my God, you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon on July 7, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI.)


“Taking on the Mantle” A Sermon for The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Luke 9:51-62

Who is Jesus? Albert Sweitzer famously said “looking for Jesus is like looking down a well. You see only your own reflection: that Jesus remains a stranger and an enigma; there will never be one answer to this question.” (The Search of the Historical Jesus). But there are things we do know about him that can help us understand his purpose and ministry.

The first thing we need to know about him was that he was a Jew. And the next thing we need to know about him was that he was a poor Jew. He was a poor Jew in a country long occupied by an imperial foreign power, the Roman Empire. Which is to say he was a powerless, disinherited person who knew the daily indignity of living under the fear of political violence.

Jesus was not a citizen in his own country. Paul was a Roman citizen, but Jesus was not. We saw a couple of weeks ago how Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed in Philippi for being Jews. Paul, as a Roman citizen, had some recourse. But Jesus had no power. If a Roman soldier pushed him into a ditch or spat on him, there was nothing he could do about it.

This powerlessness profoundly shaped him. I’m reading a book called Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. It was written in 1949, which happens to be the year I was born, and it came out right before the civil rights movement got moving in the 1950’s. Thurman, a black man, was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was one of the influences on Martin Luther King, who did his doctorate at BU. In his book, Howard Thurman draws comparisons between the socio-political world that Jesus grew up in and the American South during the Jim Crow era.

In both cases powerful majorities disinherited powerless minorities through fear and the threat of violence. The regular lynchings in Howard Thurman’s day and the regular crucifixions of Jesus’s day were both designed to instill terror in the disinherited minority and keep them in their place.

The Judaism of Jesus’s day was not monolithic, but had several different groups. Each group had a different strategy for dealing with their Roman oppressors. The Sadducees, who ran the temple, collaborated with the Romans, to hold onto their power. The Pharisees, who despised the Romans, became scrupulous keepers of the Law of Israel, and stuck to themselves. The Essenes, an ascetic sect, abandoned society altogether and moved into an isolated community in the desert along the Dead Sea. It is from them that we get the Dead Sea scrolls. And the Zealots believed that they could mount an armed insurrection against the Romans. That had been tried several times before, and let’s just say, it hadn’t gone well.

So, these various Jewish groups in Jesus day all had strategies for living under Roman occupation and for dealing with the daily indignities of being a disinherited minority.

And that brings us to Jesus. What was his strategy for dealing with the Romans? Jesus chose another way, the way of love. He admonished his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” The root of this love was the love that God had for all people. Jesus knew that hatred damaged the soul of the hater.

And Jesus’s way was a way of humility. He knew that “Humility cannot be humiliated.” His stance was one of passive resistance to the Romans. They could make him do things, but they couldn’t make him hate them, and he wouldn’t let them rob him of his dignity as a human being.

Remember how he said, “If someone strikes you on the cheek offer him the other cheek to strike.” That was most likely not a hypothetical case. A Roman soldier could slap a Jew with impunity.

Remember how he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”

Remember how he said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

This is non-violent passive resistance. It was a way of asserting dignity in the face of oppression. A Roman soldier could, by law, force anyone to carry their burden for a mile. That was their power. But to go a second mile voluntarily, that act of resistance morally challenged their power over you.

Howard Thurmond understood that Jesus had a special meaning for the disinherited, for people with their backs against the wall. He had learned the Bible by reading it out loud to his grandmother, who was born a slave and was never taught to read. One day he asked her why she never read from the letters of Paul. She said the slaveowners wouldn’t let black preachers preach to them, but would bring in white preachers, and it was always Paul telling them, “Slaves, obey your masters.” “That is why I don’t want to hear from Paul!” she told him.

But she also told him that the slaves would have secret church meetings in the middle of the night, and the black preachers would tell them, “You are not a slave. You are not that bad word they call you. You are a child of God. God loves you.” Imagine how powerful that message would have been to a slave. To hear that despite their powerlessness they had dignity as human beings.

Jesus, of course, is not only for the disinherited, the powerless and the poor, but he has a special affinity for them because he was one of them. But Jesus also loved his enemies, the Romans and the Samaritans, not just the poor and downtrodden.

And in today’s reading we are reminded of another startling fact about Jesus. He was homeless. “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)

For the three years of Jesus’s ministry he didn’t have a home. He relied on the hospitality of disciples and strangers, friends like Mary and Martha, Roman collaborators like Zacheus. Jesus was saying to his would-be follower, “You want to follow me, follow me, but my itinerate ministry is not easy. I am homeless and if you follow me, you will be too.”

That is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.”  And I have always thought that today’s passage was about the difficulty of following Jesus. How he sets the bar for discipleship so high. I still think that is part of it. But there is something more that Luke is telling in this Gospel.

Yes, Jesus is telling them there’s an urgency to following him. He receives several requests for putting off following him. One of his would-be followers said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another would-be follower said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It seems harsh doesn’t it?

The fact is, none of the requests were unreasonable, but Jesus was stressing the urgency of his purpose and mission. Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. For Luke, this is more a theological statement than a geographical. As Jesus had reminded the disciples, Jerusalem is where the prophets go to die.

So, I don’t think this passage is primarily about discipleship. I think it is more about Jesus’s own mission and purpose in living out the love of God. For one thing, in the rest of Luke’s Gospel Luke doesn’t show a high regard for the disciples. They never quite get who Jesus is.

For example, in today’s story, Jesus sends disciples ahead to a Samaritan town to seek a place to stay, but they are denied hospitality.

I need to say a word about the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They were cousins, but Samaritans had intermarried with the local Canaanites and took some of their customs. They didn’t worship at the temple in Jerusalem, but on Mt. Gerizim. For this reason, Jews and Samaritans hated each other with that special kind of hatred only estranged family members can have. Jesus had to go through Samaria to get to Jerusalem. Well, he didn’t have to, but it was the shortest distance. You can get from Rhode Island to New York City without going through Connecticut, but it is inconvenient.

Two telling stories in the Gospels say something about Jesus’s capacity to overlook walls of hatred and estrangement. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is unusual in that Jesus was even talking to a woman and that she was a Samaritan. And in the well-loved story of the Good Samaritan the point is often missed that it that the one who did the kind thing was from a hated group.

So, the disciples James and John wanted to punish the Samaritans for not offering them hospitality, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They didn’t understand that Jesus wasn’t into vengeance. Recall that it was James and John with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared to them. Elijah, of course, called down fire on the priests of Baal, and so James and John saw Jesus as a prophet like Elijah.

And recall how Luke also tells the story of the Road to Emmaus when Jesus walked with several disciples after the crucifixion and they didn’t recognize him, even though he spelled it out for them who he was. So, Luke’s depiction of Jesus disciples is uniformly negative. They were pretty much clueless.

So, we see that the disciples didn’t really get what Jesus was doing. But when Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” to directly confront the power of his Roman oppressors he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that people who said the kind of things he said and did the kind of things he did ended up on a Roman cross.

So, he “set his face to Jerusalem” as the final act of his resistance to Rome and the final act in his ministry. And remember I said the first thing we need to know about Jesus was that he was a Jew? To unmoor Jesus from his Jewish identity is to misunderstand who he was and what he was doing.

Jesus saw all the strategies of the various Jewish groups as a betrayal of the faith of Israel. He knew his Bible and how Israel over the generations had been unfaithful and disobedient to God. Jesus was himself going to embody the faithfulness and obedience to God that Israel had been unable to do. That is why he picked twelve disciples to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. That is why he began his ministry with forty days in the wilderness to mirror the forty years of wandering by the Israelites before they entered the promised land.

I need to say a word about Elijah’s mantle. A mantle is a cloak. In today’s first reading Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water of the Jordan River, and it parts just as the Red Sea did when Moses struck it with his staff. Elijah’s mantle is a symbol of his power as a prophet, and when he is taken up to heaven with the “chariots of fire” his mantle falls and is taken up by Elisha, his protégé and successor as the prophet of Israel.

And there is a subtle reference to this in today’s Gospel reading. When Elijah calls Elisha to be his disciple and follow him, Elisha asks permission from Elijah to visit his family to say goodbye, and Elijah permits it. Jesus knew this story, and by denying such permission from his would-be follower he is saying, my work is even more important than Elijah’s; my calling is more urgent.

And that brings us back to our initial question. Who is Jesus? Some of the disciples thought he was a prophet like Elijah, and he was. But he was more than a prophet, he was the Jewish messiah, God’s anointed one.

Did Jesus take on Elijah’s mantle? He did take on a cloak, but his cloak was not a symbol of the kind of power Elijah had. His cloak was a symbol of a different kind of power.

Recall with me how Mark describes the crucifixion.

And they clothed Jesus in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15: 17-20).

Have you ever wondered why none of the Gospels go into detail about the crucifixion? They didn’t need to. Everybody in those days had seen one. Everyone knew it was a slave’s death, a horrible, painful, disgraceful way to die. And Jesus chose to accept it. He took on the mantle of Israel in the end, and was mocked as “the King of the Jews.” He took it on and died a slave’s death.

And that would have been that, except that Jesus didn’t stay dead. The resurrection was God’s “Amen!” to Jesus’s way of love and humility, of faithfulness and obedience.

Jesus’s way of love and humility still has the power to affirm human meaning and dignity. How many in our time could use the reassurance that Howard Thurmond’s grandmother, born a slave, passed on to him: that he was a child of God, that he was loved by God. How many in our time don’t believe they are worth anybody’s love? How many don’t experience basic human dignity?

We have an opioid epidemic that is taking human lives. We have a teen suicide epidemic that is taking human lives. Both are public health crises that require government attention.

But both are also spiritual crises about the loss of meaning, purpose and hope for many in our society. What a difference it would make if the church could adequately share our faith that God loves everyone, that every human being has dignity.

And, whether we are always conscious of it or not, our statement that we welcome everybody to this church embodies the ethic of love and humility of Jesus and witnesses to the love of God for all people.

I started this sermon with the question “Who is Jesus?” As Albert Sweitzer said there can never be just one answer to that question. But one good answer is the one Dietrich Bonhoeffer came up with: “Jesus is the man for others.” He showed, by word and deed, the love of God to all people. He loved the unlovable, gave dignity to the disinherited, and showed us all a way to live, a way to be fully human. A way to live as God would have us live. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on June 30, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island. For an audio podcast of it go here. The photo is Rembrandt’s “Head of Christ.”)

“Growing Up” A Sermon on Galatians 3: 23-29

Growing up isn’t easy! I’ve had four grandchildren in the last two and a half years, so you can imagine I have spent a good deal of time with toddlers, and I am in awe of my children’s parenting. Toddlers need constant supervision, encouragement, and correction. I’ve heard my children say, gently but firmly, things like: “We don’t throw things at the dog!” and “Careful. You really don’t want to stick your finger in your baby brother’s eye.” Continue reading

Seared Sea Scallops with Pepper Garlic Saffron Linguini

This is really one of those “no recipe” recipes that you throw together and comes out great. The better the sea scallops, the better the result, so I recommend “dry” (also known as “diver”) scallops, although I have to admit I’ve had pretty good results with frozen wild-caught American sea scallops. (Yes, I know all scallops come from the sea, but “sea scallops” are the big ones to differentiate them from the smaller “bay scallops” or the the even smaller “calico scallops.”) Continue reading

“Down with Chaos!” A Devotion on Psalm 93:4

“More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!”—Psalm 93: 4 (NRSV)

Before there was something there was nothing. The proto-physicist(s) who imagined the creation of the universe “in the beginning” described a formless emptiness. To the Ancients water, especially the sea, was a symbol of chaos, understood as disorder, tumult, and confusion. Continue reading